Robert Browning as a young man by James Charles Armytage. [Click on thumbnail for larger image.]Robert Browning was one of the earliest students at University College London. He was, of course, a Londoner — though Camberwell, the southeast area of London where he was born and brought up, was quite rural before the arrival of the railways. His dissenting father had subscribed to the foundation of University College (then still calling itself London University), and was therefore eligible to nominate one student for free tuition there. "Robert was earnestly recommended by his father, describing himself as 'a parent anxious for the welfare of an only Son' who deemed admission to the University 'essential to his future happiness,'" explains Iain Finlayson, adding that Browning's father also wrote glowingly of his son's moral character and "unwearied application" in the previous six years to Greek, Latin and French (61). Despite his miserable experiences at a school in Peckham (Karlin xvi n.10), the young Browning himself was keen to enrol, and was duly admitted in 1828. As the sixteenth entrant, he was amongst the very first intake of students, and set out to study Greek, Latin and German. However, the teenager who had been educated at home for the last two years, and had had the run of his father's very well-stocked library, dropped out in 1829: "School and college simply wearied him: the pedantic routine was stifling," says Finlayson (62).
There was more to it than Finlayson implies, though. In the first place, the experience was not all negative. A passage from the early fragment Pauline" (1833) clearly alludes to this period of Browning's life:
And I was lonely, far from woods and fields,
And amid dullest sights, who should be loose
As a stag; yet I was full of bliss, who lived
With Plato, and who had the key to life [(ll.433-36; see Roberts 733n.]
This shows a fairly predictable, normal mix of homesickness, culture shock (as the "dullest sights" of the big grey city encroach on the young student's consciousness) and, more happily, intellectual stimulation. Most students accommodate themselves to such a change and settle down to syllabus-led studies. But Browning had an acute sense of self ("I am made up of an intensest life, / Of a most clear idea of consciousness / Of self" [Pauline, ll. 268-10]), and he wanted and needed to strike out on a path of his own choosing. Building "thought ... on thought" was unlikely to satisfy him for long, and it was probably inevitable that he would turn his back on "theories" (even his own) "to look and learn / Mankind, its cares, hopes, fears, its woes and joys" (Pauline, ll.438, 442-44).
As Browning looked back on this time, and indeed on the whole of his formal education, he seems to have become more and more disillusioned with it. The eponymous alchemist Paracelsus would express this disillusion more boldly in his next poem. Admitting that he was full of an "arrogant self-reliance" (I, l.649), Paraclesus had decided that
Rather consists in opening out a way
Whence the imprisoned splendour may escape,
Than in effecting entry from a light
Supposed to be without....
To die case-hardened in their ignorance,
Whose careless youth had promised what long years
Of unremitted labour ne'er performed [Paracelsus I, ll.801-5; 813-6]
Who said these old renowns, dead long ago,
Could make me overlook the living world
To gaze through gloom at where they stood indeed,
But stand no longer? [Paracelsus V, ll.188-91.]
It is risky to connect Browning's poetry with his own life, but Pauline is clearly very self-involved, as John Stuart Mill recognised when Browning audaciously sent it to him in the hope of a review; and Paracelsus, for all its dramatic form and variety of speakers, just as clearly reflects his thinking at this stage of his life. G. K. Chesterton, who attended University College London over sixty years after Browning, said the poem should abolish once and for all the whole "fallacy" of Browning as a "frigid believer in the intellect" (Ch. I), while later critics like E. D. H. Johnson have produced more detailed commentaries on the poem to show why. Moreover, along with "the intellect" Browning specifically tilts at academe, for this is a poem in which students and teachers alike come in for scathing criticism (see Karlin xvi-xvii, especially the end of n.10 again).
Contemporary accounts of Browning support the idea of an individualistic young man, resistant to being taught by those he could not admire. Even at this stage of his life he cut a dash with his Byronic good looks, especially his long dark wavy hair, and was looked up to by his peers (Finlayson 62-63).
Chesterton, G. K. Robert Browning. London: Macmillan, n.d. Project Gutenberg. Web. 29 April 2007.
Finlayson, Iain. Browning: A Private Life. London: HarperCollins, 2004.
Karlin, Daniel. Introduction to Robert Browning: The Major Works, ed. Adam Roberts. London: Oxford (World's Classics), 2005. xi-xxvii.
Roberts, Adam, ed. Robert Browning: The Major Works. London: Oxford (World's Classics), 2005.
Last modified 12 January 2017